Shh! I can’t hear myself think

Tools of the trade

It was going to be a simple training exercise. For the past few days, I’d been working with Lyra on touching a dowel (or rather, a wooden spoon) with her nose. I hold out the dowel, she touches it with her nose, I try to click just as her nose begins to touch the dowel, she gets a treat. Simple. It took her only 3 or 4 clicks to figure out what I wanted her to do — and it will bring us closer to a “retrieve” one day.

(I am new to dog sports, by the way. I can’t quite believe I am using “retrieve” as a noun.)

Lyra loves to train. Her face, when she is watching me, trying to figure out our next move, is priceless. I don’t care if she ever truly excels at dog sports. I’m dipping into them — like Tom Thumb — to find pieces of training that she enjoys. Someday, I’ll make her a ribbon out of different colours to show her fragments of skill. I love each one. When we “work” (on heel, or a leg weave, or whatever) it feels like a break — because neither of us is worrying.

Here’s a video of Lyra in training when she’s not scared:

She ought to have enjoyed the dowel “game”. She knew what to do. I practise skills with her indoors, in a small, quiet space, until she figures it out. Then we go into the yard to add a few distractions — to see if she knows the skill well enough to bring it on tour (so to speak). She usually feels safe in our yard.

Lyra is always listening

Only, the other day, just after we came outside, she heard something. Lyra is very particular about her sound phobias. Many sounds, like thunder, barely register with her, but this one did. I only saw that she was a bit distracted. She wasn’t touching the dowel quickly. She seemed half interested in her treats, and her ears were mobile. Then I heard the low sound of the truck, punctuated by the beep of its reversal — like a run-on sentence.

At that point, I should have stopped training. No law says that you have to work through a plan, and it’s a flaw in any teacher to insist. Lyra is teaching me the value of agility: not the sport, but the ability to change speed and direction, even to stop, lightly. (I’m not there yet. No ribbons for me!)

So the video (below) kept running. If nothing else, it shows the impact of even mild fear on learning. It’s not dramatic — Lyra is not shutting down or distressed — but I can see low-level anxiety in her ears and her hesitation. At the very end of the video, we do the same routine in a quiet room. There’s a significant difference.

This video highlights a few things I’ve learnt in training Lyra:

  1. A dog can hear things before we do. If a dog has sound-related anxiety, and seems to be blowing you off in training, it may be that she can hear something.
  2. Anxiety dampens enthusiasm for work. No kidding!
  3. If a training session is not going to plan — for whatever reason — stop. While I like the idea of ending on a good note, there are times when just “ending” is the best you can do. Lyra has never suffered from being protected too soon.

All of this has made me think about classrooms. We take puppies to class to help them socialize. But when it comes to learning skills, most trainers suggest that you work with your dog in a quiet place first. No distractions. You ensure that the dog has had enough exercise to feel calm and attentive. You never train a dog who shows signs of fear; you deal with the fear first. If the dog feels overwhelmed by the environment, you take the dog out.

How much of this do we apply to our own children?

4 comments on “Shh! I can’t hear myself think

  1. I’m always delighted to find out how much training of dogs can be related to the training of cats. I too have experimented with clicker training and, if for no other reasons than food and attention, my cats like our time together.

    Most of my work is indoors, but of late I’ve been taking my one cat outdoors and to an agility club. As the club, I always know when someone else is about to enter the building, because my cat will perk her ears and tense.

    Even so, I sometimes neglect to pay attention to her. One day, she surprised me with her reaction to a visitor. I expected her to take the outing all in stride but she didn’t. In hindsight, like you, I should have seen the signs of her stress. I’ve been learning to become a better observer.

    If interested, you can check out my whole story here:

    • Nice post! My cat is more easily startled than Lyra by random noises (Lyra has noise phobias, but with noises in general she’s pretty relaxed); he’s also not keen to go to the vet’s office. Yet, because he’s more “manageable” than my 39-pound border collie, I tend to put less effort (i.e., some, but less) into helping him with these issues. I also think he’d enjoy training for fun; he’s very food driven! I’m trying to persuade my daughter to train him in agility 🙂 It takes a long time, and practice, to read signs of mental state in another species — so brava for working on it.

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